Chargers Happy and Healthy After Opener

RB LaDainian Tomlinson (Stephen Dunn/Getty)

The Chargers played a preseason game, and it's not important who won, but who played.

LaDainian Tomlinson carried the ball for the first time in an exhibition game since 2005 and looked spry. But just as important are three key players also tuning up their skills, which wasn't possible last summer.

Left tackle Marcus McNeill is no longer rehabbing a neck injury.

Center Nick Hardwick, who missing the first three regular season games last year with a foot injury, is no longer deep in the training room.

And Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates looked especially crisp. He skipped the summer games last year with a foot injury.


LB Shawne Merriman
Jacob de Golish/Getty
Plus three-time Pro Bowler Shawne Merriman was back testing his re-built knee.

Having so many critical players playing, instead of rehabbing, could lead the squad to a good start.

Among the mantras in camp is starting strong and not having to rely on late-season wins to clinch a playoff spot.

Last year the Chargers started 2-3 en route to an 8-8 season. The Chargers not only had to win late but count on the Broncos' collapsing.

Two years ago in Norv Turner's first year, the Chargers stumbled out 1-3.

With their first four games against the likes of the Raiders, Ravens, Dolphins and Steelers, the Chargers need to be keen to not be buried in another midseason hole.

That's why it was so rewarding to the coaching staff -- and the players -- that so many were active so soon.

And maybe that's why Tomlinson was so eager to play this summer. He wants to start strong, and thinks getting work in August will pay off in September.

"I wanted to get in there and get some rhythm and some tempo and some timing with my linemen and fullback, and I thought we did that," he said.

What the Chargers really want to do is start with a sense of urgency. The first signs of being able to accomplish that were on display in the preseason opener.

The defense also wants to quickly turn the page on a season that saw its pass defense rank next-to-last.

The plan is that a healthy Merriman will translate on the back end and cut the time the secondary has to stay with receivers.

"You like to see what the first groups are doing, and I like what we did defensively," Turner said, although the Chargers dropped their preseason opener to Seattle. "I like the way (the defense) is playing. I like the way they're practicing. I think it will be a much improved unit, especially in the secondary."



Maybe he's being coy. Maybe he's adding another wrinkle.

But coach Norv Turner has installed the team's Wildcat formation in camp practices.

"I'm not as concerned about how we handle it offensively as how we deal with it from a defensive perspective," Turner said.

He might have a point as the Dolphins were able to run it well in beating the Chargers last year.

But the Chargers also would seem to be a prime candidate to dust off the Wildcat as well.

LaDainian Tomlinson, who can throw the ball, was lining up behind center. Tomlinson has seven touchdown passes and no interceptions.


WR Legedu Naanee
Jacob de Golish/Getty
Legedu Naanee is another versatile play who could be utilized. The wide receiver played quarterback in high school and some in college.

But, considering what he has and how it's working, Turner downplays employing the Wildcat.

"When we go to Wildcat we put the guy (Philip Rivers) who led the league in touchdowns and quarterback rating out about 5 yards from me on the sideline and (Antonio) Gates at tackle," Turner said. "That should tell you how excited I am about (the Wildcat)."

But given the weapons and Turner's innovative touch, don't be shocked if the Chargers go Wildcat this season.

"Who knows," Tomlinson said when asked of the chances of seeing it in the regular season.

And if not? If rivals know the Chargers have practiced it, that is as effective as well, as it gives opposing defenses something to think about.

The Chargers are always thinking about ways to get the athletic Naanee the ball more. He might get some extra touches if the Chargers were to embrace the Wildcat. Turner doesn't sound wild about it. But that's not to say he won't try it.

CAMP CALENDAR: The Chargers break camp Aug. 27.

NOTES, QUOTES

--In one of the funnier moments of camp, DT Jamal Williams did an epic face-plant. Williams deflected a Philip Rivers pass, which Rivers caught on the rebound. Rivers, who is not fleet, and Williams, who pushes 350, both headed up the field. Williams was gaining ground before slipping and getting a mouthful of turf. "Jamal took a dive there, and he's going upstairs right now to see if the video guys will take it out so no one ever sees it," coach Norv Turner said. "It'll get some laughs tonight when we show it again in the meeting."


WR Malcom Floyd
Jacob de Golish/Getty
--Former Chargers WR John Jefferson stopped by practice. Jefferson played with Charlie Joiner, the team's receivers' coach.

--ILB Brandon Siler has a lightning bolt for each side shaved into his haircut.

--SS Clinton Hart has noticed that FS Eric Weddle has cut down on his yapping. "He came in a talker, but he's learning more, and it's making him a better football player." Weddle's camp was briefly derailed by an ankle injury from a collision with CB Quentin Jammer.

--OLB Shawne Merriman, in his first live action since last year's season opener, said his mended knee held up well initially after the game. "It feels pretty good right now," he said. "I didn't play too much, but hopefully in the next game my reps will increase a little bit."

--The offensive line looked sharp in the season opener. Neither Philip Rivers nor Billy Volek was sacked when the first unit was in.

--Not wanting to tax Darren Sproles, Buster Davis returned kickoffs and punts. Davis averaged 24 yards on two kick returns.

--The Chargers signed only one name free agent in the offseason -- ILB Kevin Burnett. He fared well in his Chargers debut with a team-high six tackles.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "If we're even, Philip (Rivers) believes we can beat our guy and make a play. It's times like that when your competitiveness takes over and you make something happen." -- WR Vincent Jackson on Rivers' confidence in his receivers.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

RB Michael Bennett showed well in the preseason opener, which aids his roster shot. Bennett rushed for 21 yards on six carries.

--Usually reliable K Nate Kaeding misfired on a 33-yard attempt at the end of the first half.

--SS Steve Gregory did something against Seattle that is seldom seen from the Chargers secondary -- a teeth-rattling hit. Gregory put a good pop on WR Deon Butler; Gregory is battling Clinton Hart for the starting job.

--WR Legedu Naanee continues to look like he will be a bigger part of the offense. He scored on a 5-yard pass. He is very versatile -- perfect for the Wildcat.

--OLB Antwan Applewhite is at a position loaded with talent. But he continues to make plays in pushing for playing time. He had an interception in the Seattle game.

BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Kynan Forney vs. Louis Vasquez for starting right guard. This one had the look of a spirited competition but not anymore. With Vasquez missing a week of practices with a foot injury, Forney has solidified his status to replace Mike Goff. Vasquez can't afford to miss time in making the switch from a spread offense and is falling behind.

OTHER BATTLE FRONTS: Mike Tolbert beat out Jacob Hester at fullback in last year's camp but this year appears different. Hester was a starter at the end of the season last year and seems able to hold off Tolbert. Tolbert could be fighting for a roster spot. ... ILB Kevin Burnett was brought in for a reason and he has looked good in practice. Tim Dobbins, though, has a more of an edge and is more effective on running downs. Dobbins has the lead for now, but the number of snaps they share is getting close.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: WR Malcom Floyd gets lost among all the Chargers' weapons, but Floyd provides a good target and his reliable hands are too good to pass up. Floyd is having another solid camp and he capped the week with an acrobatic 37-yard reception against the Steelers. "No one works harder than Malcom," QB Philip Rivers said.

ROOKIE REPORT

--OLB Larry English is slowly coming back from a hamstring injury.

--RG Louis Vasquez hopes to return this week from a foot injury.

--Vaughn Martin, a fourth-round pick out of Canada, continues to show he's more than a project. With Jacques Cesaire out he is getting a ton of snaps and seems to make progress each day.

--Keep an eye on Charly Martin. The undrafted free agent is opening some eyes as a possession receiver. He might stick on the practice squad.

--Seventh-round pick Demetrius Byrd, a receiver, has yet to sign his contract. He was not expected at camp as he still recovers for injuries in a car accident.

INJURY REPORT: ILB Larry English (hamstring) is working his way back into practice; should play in Atlanta. ... RG Louis Vasquez (foot) is out of his walking boot and might go toward the middle of the week. ... DL Ryon Bingham (arm) is day-to-day. ... DL Jacques Cesaire (calf) likely will practice early in the week.

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